Most of the reporting on the outcome of the elections in May for the 90-member Northern Ireland Assembly (NIA) has concentrated on Sinn Féin’s winning the highest number of seats and the highest proportion of first preference votes (FPVs). Some have called it ‘historical’ and have referred to a ‘seismic shift’ in the politics of NI, where unionists no longer dominate. A closer look at the figures suggests a more cautious approach is required.
Analysing the results
While it is true that SF ‘won’ the election in terms of seats and FPVs and won the right to nominate the First Minister, its 27 seats is the same number it had in the last assembly and its 29.02 per cent of the FPV represents a rise of only 1.3 per cent over the previous elections in 2017. This increase came largely at the expense of the other nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which lost 2.8 per cent of FPVs. More significantly the SDLP lost four seats, none of which went to SF, thus reducing the Nationalist bloc from 39 to 35.
While the Unionist bloc also lost seats, declining from 40 to 37, it remains the largest bloc in the assembly. The main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, which was formerly the largest party in the assembly, won 25 seats, three less than in 2017. More significantly, its share of the FPV declined from 28.1 per cent to 21.3 per cent. Most of that decline went to the Traditional Unionist Voice, a unionist party more hardline than the DUP. The TUV increased its vote by 5 per cent to 7.63 per cent. Even so, it continues to hold just one seat. The more moderate Ulster Unionist Party lost 1.7 per cent of its 2017 vote while its seats went from 10 to nine. Two unionist independents account for the other two seats in the Unionist bloc.
If the DUP was the biggest loser, at least in terms of votes, the Alliance Party was the biggest winner. Neither Nationalist nor Unionist, it won 17 seats compared to eight in 2017, increasing its FPVs by 4.4 per cent to 13.53 per cent. It attracted votes from both unionist and nationalist parties, leading some commentators to talk of the rise of the centre in NI politics and the demise of the traditional binary divide between orange and green. While that interpretation is open, it needs to be noted that the AP gained two seats at the expense of the other non-aligned party, the Green Party. Furthermore, the following analysis suggests that if the trend is away from binary politics, the pace of such change is slow.
Looked at overall, the 2022 elections yielded the following results. In terms of seats won the blocs divide as follows (with 2017 figures in brackets): Nationalist 35 (39), Unionist 37 (40), Other 18 (11). In terms of the percentage of FPVs for elected members: Nationalist 38.09 (42.19), Unionist 43.03 (43.6), Other 14.67 (10.87). An analysis of FPVs cast for all candidates based on their declared position on the question of NI’s constitutional status during the 2022 campaign indicates a slightly different breakup: Nationalist 41.4, Unionist 42.2, Other 16.4. In other words, the orange v. green divide continues to hover around the 40/40 figure.
What do the election results mean for Northern Ireland
In my previous article on the elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, I observed that the elections would resolve nothing so far as the needs and wants of the people of NI are concerned. Unlike Australia’s majoritarian system, where the winner earns the right to implement its program to deal with the political issues of the day, the power-sharing model adopted to keep the peace in NI provides no such resolution. Bread and butter issues concerning cost of living increases and the crisis in healthcare remain to be addressed while more abstract constitutional issues have been the centre of attention both during the campaign and since the election. In fact, so dominant are those latter issues that the newly elected assembly cannot even meet to debate the bread and butter issues and a new government cannot be sworn in to address them. This is because the DUP is refusing to take part in the system and, absent cross-community collaboration, the Northern Ireland Act does not permit the institutions to function except in a continuing caretaker mode. (See the previous article for an explanation of how the system works.)
The DUP has made it a condition of its participation in the new assembly and new executive that the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), a part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, be scrapped or substantially amended. However, subject to one caveat, the fate of the NIP is outside the competence of the NI government to determine.
The NIP is an international agreement between the UK government and the EU. As such, it will remain in force according to its terms until those parties mutually agree to terminate or amend it or one of those parties repudiates it (which the British government has threatened to do). The caveat is that the NIP itself provides that the NIA is to vote in 2024 on whether its core provisions should continue to operate. Because the vote is to be decided by a simple majority and more than half the MLAs elected to the new assembly support its continuation, this mechanism is of no avail to the DUP’s desire to remove those provisions.
Although the NIP is outside the NI government’s power to control, the DUP is using it as a pretext to prevent the assembly from functioning (by refusing to participate in the election of a Speaker) and to prevent an executive to be formed (by refusing to nominate a deputy First Minister). By doing so, the DUP is also preventing the nomination of SF’s Michelle O’Neil as First Minister. Some commentators contend this is the real reason for the DUP’s intransigence. Although the First Minister and deputy First Minister are of equal legal status, the idea of a SF First Minister is anathema to many in the DUP, hence the party’s abstentionist stand. Some DUP supporters point to SF’s refusal to take its seats at Westminster as justification for its current position. However, the refusal of a handful of SF MPs to sit in the Westminster parliament does not stop the House of Commons from meeting; nor does it prevent the formation of the British cabinet. So, there is no equivalence.
What the future holds
Although a majority of the newly elected MLA’s support the NIP, the British government is backing the unionists who are opposed to the NIP. This is partly because of internal Tory politics and partly as a means of putting pressure on the EU to agree to amend the NIP. However, although the EU is open to minor amendments to resolve some of the difficulties that have arisen in implementing the NIP, it will not agree to the root and branch changes required to satisfy the DUP or the British government. Absent a fudge (which has been the way out of similar impasses in the past), the DUP is likely to continue to hold out for some time. Under the legislation, the parties have six months to form an Executive, failing which they may face a new election.
A lot can happen in six months, but the recent visit to NI of the US envoys led by Richard Neal has served to indicate to the DUP and the British government that the Biden administration does not back their stances on the NIP. As the British government is keen to sign a free trade agreement with the US to prove to its constituents that Brexit is working, the British government might soften its stance, once again abandoning the DUP as it did by agreeing to the NIP in the first place.
In the meantime, the people of NI have to rely for their wellbeing on a devolved government that is hobbled by a power-sharing system that enables one side of the communal divide to prevent the new assembly from meeting and a new executive from being formed. So, at this stage, the answer to the question ‘Who won the elections for the NIA’ is ‘Nobody’.